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The Wallpaper Of Spitalfields

October 27, 2021
by the gentle author

One house in Fournier St has wallpapers dating from 1690 until 1960. This oldest piece of wallpaper was already thirty years old when it was pasted onto the walls of the new house built by joiner William Taylor in 1721, providing evidence – as if it were ever needed – that people have always prized beautiful old things.

John Nicolson, the current owner of the house, keeps his treasured collection of wallpaper preserved between layers of tissue in chronological order, revealing both the history and tastes of his predecessors. First, there were the wealthy Huguenot silk weavers who lived in the house until they left for Scotland in the nineteenth century, when it was subdivided as rented dwellings for Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe. Yet, as well as illustrating the precise social history of this location in Spitalfields, the wider significance of the collection is that it tells the story of English wallpaper – through examples from a single house.

When John Nicolson bought it in 1995, the house had been uninhabited since the nineteen thirties, becoming a Jewish tailoring workshop and then an Asian sweatshop before reaching the low point of dereliction, repossessed and rotting. John undertook a ten year renovation programme, moving into the attic and then colonising the rooms as they became habitable, one by one. Behind layers of cladding applied to the walls, the original fabric of the house was uncovered and John ensured that no materials left the building, removing nothing that predated 1970. A leaky roof had destroyed the plaster which came off the walls as he uncovered them, but John painstakingly salvaged all the fragments of wallpaper and all the curios lost by the previous inhabitants between the floorboards too.

“I wanted it to look like a three hundred year old house that had been lovingly cared for and aged gracefully over three centuries,” said John, outlining his ambition for the endeavour, “- but it had been trashed, so the challenge was to avoid either the falsification of history or a slavish recreation of one particular era.” The house had undergone two earlier renovations, to update the style of the panelling in the seventeen-eighties and to add a shopfront in the eighteen-twenties. John chose to restore the facade as a domestic frontage, but elsewhere his work has been that of careful repair to create a home that retains its modest domesticity and humane proportions, appreciating the qualities that make these Spitalfields houses distinctive.

The ancient wallpaper fragments are as delicate as butterfly wings now, but each one was once a backdrop to life as it was played out through the ages in this tottering old house. I can envisage the seventeenth century wallpaper with its golden lozenges framing dog roses would have gleamed by candlelight and brightened a dark drawing room through the winter months with its images of summer flowers, and I can also imagine the warm glow of the brown-hued Victorian designs under gaslight in the tiny rented rooms, a century later within the same house. When I think of the countless hours I have spent staring at the wallpaper in my time, I can only wonder at the number of day dreams that were once projected upon these three centuries of wallpaper.

Flowers and foliage are the constant motifs throughout all these papers, confirming that the popular fashion for floral designs on the wall has extended for over three hundred years already. Sometimes the flowers are sparser, sometimes more stylised but, in general, I think we may surmise that, when it comes to choosing wallpaper, people like to surround themselves with flowers. Wallpaper offers an opportunity to inhabit an everlasting bower, a garden that never fades or requires maintenance. And maybe a pattern of flowers is more forgiving than a geometric design? When it comes to concealing the damp patches, or where the baby vomited, or where the mistress threw the wine glass at the wall, floral is the perfect English compromise of the bucolic and the practical.

Two surprises in this collection of wallpaper contradict the assumed history of Spitalfields. One is a specimen from 1895 that has been traced through the Victoria & Albert Museum archive and discovered to be very expensive – sixpence a yard, equivalent to week’s salary – entirely at odds with the assumption that these rented rooms were inhabited exclusively by the poor at that time. It seems that then, as now, there were those prepared to scrimp for the sake of enjoying exorbitant wallpaper. The other surprise is a modernist Scandinavian design by Eliel Saarinen from the nineteen twenties – we shall never know how this got there. John Nicolson likes to think that people who appreciate good design have always recognised the beauty of these exemplary old houses in Fournier St, which would account for the presence of both the expensive 1895 paper and the Saarinen pattern from 1920, and I see no reason to discount this theory.

I leave you to take a look at this selection of fragments from John’s archive and imagine for yourself the human dramas witnessed by these humble wallpapers of Fournier St.

Fragments from the seventeen-twenties

Hand-painted wallpaper from the seventeen-eighties

Printed wallpaper from the seventeen-eighties



Mid-nineteenth century fake wood panelling wallpaper, as papered over real wooden panelling

Wallpaper by William Morris, 1880

Expensive wallpaper at sixpence a yard from 1885


Late nineteenth century, in a lugubrious Arts & Crafts style

A frieze dating from  1900

In an Art Nouveau style c. 1900

Modernist design by Finnish designer Eliel Saarinen from the nineteen-twenties

Nineteen-sixties floral

Vinyl wallpaper from the nineteen-sixties

Items that John Nicolson found under the floorboards of his eighteenth-century house in Fournier St, including a wedding ring, pipes, buttons, coins, cotton reels, spinning tops, marbles, broken china and children’s toys. Note the child’s leather boot, the pair of jacks found under the front step, and the blue bottle of poison complete with syringe discovered in a sealed-up medicine cupboard which had been papered over. Horseshoes were found hidden throughout the fabric of the house to bring good luck, and the jacks and child’s shoe may also have been placed there for similar reasons.

17 Responses leave one →
  1. Pauline Dufaur permalink
    October 27, 2021

    A fascinating collection of both wallpapers & items found under the floorboards. This collection has really brought history to life for me. Thank you John (& the Gentle Author of course)

  2. Annabel Emslie permalink
    October 27, 2021

    Instant transportation back in time. Magical!

  3. Janet Ellis permalink
    October 27, 2021

    Fascinating. Thanks to John Nicolson for preserving these fragments so carefully.+

  4. Richard Gilbert permalink
    October 27, 2021

    Thank you for sharing this. My grandfather in his day was a tailor based in Middlesex Street but with rooms in Fournier Street. By the time I was old enough to go into work with him in the 1970’s, he was solely based at 10 Fournier Street. His street facing red and cream window was emblazoned with the legend “M. Lustig & Co manufacturers of superior mens clothing”. I can still recall the state of neglect the property was in. The only room I was allowed into was the ground floor one, which is the one he rented, and even then I was not allowed in the back of the room because the ceiling was propped up with two rusty looking ceiling props. At the rear of the property was a leather workshop and as far as I can recall there was only one other occupant on one of the floors upstairs. I never saw them but would hear them come up and down the very creaky staircase. My grandfather left Fournier Street in the mid 1980s when he was forced to retire due to failing eye sight. The first time I went back there after that time was in July 1992. I went with a friend who had qualified as a surveyor. I got out the car to take a look around as the front door was open, with the front of the house covered in scaffolding. My friend told me that as it was a building site and that I shouldn’t go in. As I disappeared into the house to have a nose around my grandfather’s old room (I could see from the street that the door to his room was open) I told my friend that even with the scaffolding and it being a building site, the house was in the safest condition it had been in for decades. I have fond memories of my time in Fournier Street with lumps of plaster falling off the ceiling and it’s those experiences and my time spent with my grandfather in the East End that gave me a love of the area (a place where three of my grandparents grew up) and of history.

  5. Ann V permalink
    October 27, 2021

    What a brilliant archive! Thank you for sharing it.

  6. Richard Smith permalink
    October 27, 2021


  7. October 27, 2021

    I was struck by the resemblance of the 1960s floral paper to its earlier counterparts, the first one and the 1720s in particular, a kinship of subject and style.

  8. Graham Parker permalink
    October 27, 2021

    While I love the idea of a former resident scrimping and saving to enjoy something beautiful at 6d/yd, given the proximity to the docks isn’t it more likely that a few rolls ‘fell off the back of a lorry?’

  9. October 27, 2021

    Highly interesting. When Kassel was destroyed in 1943, there were only rubble houses. The rubble of these houses was heaped up after the war to form a hillside (Rosenhang).

    The recycling artist Wolfgang Luh has made countless finds from this slope public in an exhibition. Among them were many pieces from past centuries. A very similar documentary work as John Nicolson is practicing.

    Sorry, the video is in German:

    Love & Peace

  10. Jennifer permalink
    October 27, 2021

    This might be one of my favorite posts of yours yet. Fascinating to see and think about, and a wonderful document of style and life. Love the research it must have taken to determine the piece that had been costly. I’m curious how he was able to retrieve the various fragments, if they had been applied on top of one another?

  11. October 27, 2021

    I’m enthralled! At first, I was totally caught up in the shards of paper (tell me: What could be better?) — but when I saw the collection of “under the floor board” relics, I was hooked.

    “a wedding ring”. Well. Now, I am writing scenarios in my mind about that ring. Some of them are the “oh shucks” feeling that follows a dropped ring that rolls just out of reach. Down a drain, in between old floor boards, etc. OK, fine. But there are endless other plot lines. A secret/double life perhaps? A sinister tale? A ring that was saved-for, but never given? A family heirloom, out of sight, out of mind? Its endless.

    Thanks for tweaking my imagination today!

  12. Sonia Murray permalink
    October 27, 2021

    What a loving remembrance of the families who lived in this house and enjoyed the varied styles of wallpaper! The delicate blue and white of the 1780’s and the 1960’s golden honesty pattern are lovely, and should be brought to the attention of modern wallpaper manufacturers, for revival.

  13. C Scofield permalink
    October 27, 2021

    A wonderful read! Exquisite palette of colors

  14. Emmie Pollard permalink
    October 27, 2021

    What a great commentary on the past through wallpaper. Is there ever an open house?

  15. Liz Coviello permalink
    October 28, 2021

    Thanks you for sharing this amazing history of your house and the area. I moved into an 1849s house and there was old wall paper in a cupboard but unfortunately I was unable to trace them or do anything about them. You make me wish I had done now.

  16. October 31, 2021

    What an amazing restoration by John Nicholson. A heartwarming story.
    In response to Lynne Perellas’ comment: My mother lost her wedding ring in Woolworth’s at Mitcham Surrey back in the 1960s. She had arthritis and would put the ring in her purse when her fingers swelled and she’d had to take it off. She went to pay for something and heard the tinkle as the ring fell on to the floor, sadly disappearing down one of the cracks in the parquet style wooden floors that Woollies had back then. The ring was never recovered, but we always wondered if anyone discovered it when the Mitcham Woolworth’s was demolished!

  17. November 7, 2021

    When, after the death of my mother, I sold the house where she and my father (who’d died some thirty years earlier) had lived all their married lives, I dropped their wedding rings through a gap between the floorboards under the stairs before leaving the house for the last time. It seemed the most appropriate place for them. Perhaps a similar sentiment applies here.

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